A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: A poet leads his nation into war

For nine months, Italy had kept clear of the carnage. Then dissolute, charismatic Gabriele D’Annunzio intervened

The Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio was an ugly, spindly, bald little man who had fled Italy in a hurry when his extravagance drove him to bankruptcy. In May 1915, he was back, playing a new role, as the saviour of the nation.

Italy had stayed out of the Great War, now in its ninth month. The country had been tied by treaty into an alliance with Germany and Austria, but Rome was not consulted before Austria declared war on Serbia,  so the government decided it was not bound to join the Central Powers.

Besides, there was nothing Italy wanted that it could gain at the expense of Austria’s enemies. But within the Austrian empire, near Italy’s northern border and along the eastern Adriatic coast, were towns with big Italian communities which revanchists like D’Annunzio believed should be in a greater Italy.

His intervention mattered because public opinion was volatile and D’Annunzio was Italy’s leading poet, a charismatic speaker and an effective rabble-rouser. He was, as his biographer Lucy Hughes-Hallett demonstrates, an extreme example of a repugnant personality and a great artistic talent residing in the same person.

He knew the terrible cost of war. In Paris, he had been in contact with Peppino Garibaldi, grandson of the founder of modern Italy, who had raised a legion of Italian volunteers to fight alongside the French. One quarter were already dead. No matter. D’Annunzio had a headful of Nietzschean ideas of supermen and the will to power, of virility and nationhood, and was transfixed by the idea that Italy must put itself through this rite of passage to earn respect as a nation.

 

On 13 May 1915, he chatted pleasantly in his hotel room with two acquaintances, one a sculptor, the other an aristocrat whose wife was on D’Annunzio’s long list of sexual conquests. Outside, an excited crowd was clamouring to hear the poet and prophet of war. He had been back in Italy for less than 10 days, and had arrived in Rome only the previous night. As the agreeable conversation wound down, D’Annunzio stepped out on to the adjoining balcony and delivered what amounted to an incitement to riot and murder.

“Comrades, it is no longer time for speaking but for doing,” he declaimed. “No longer time for orations, but for actions, Roman actions. If it is considered a crime to incite the citizenry to violence, I glory in that crime, I take it upon myself alone…Every excess of force is allowable, if it avails to prevent the loss of our Fatherland. You have to prevent a handful of pimps and swindlers from sullying and losing Italy.”

The crowd roared its agreement. The next day, a riot broke out in the centre of Rome. The parliament building was invaded, and furniture smashed. Troops were called out to guard the Austrian embassy.  Ten days later, on 24 May, Italy went to war.

In D’Annunzio’s mind, he was the voice of a vigorous, uncorrupted Italy railing against a corrupt ruling elite. Actually, he was helping to settle a power struggle between rival factions of Italy’s ruling class, and helping to thwart the will of parliament.

The faction that wanted Italy to enter the war was small but active. Its most famous convert was the journalist Benito Mussolini, who was editor of the socialist newspaper Avanti! when war began, and wrote editorials warning that to take Italy into the conflict would be “an unpardonable crime”. By October 1914, he had changed his mind. He resigned from Avanti! and took just two weeks to launch his own French-backed, pro-war daily newspaper, Il Popolo d’Italia. His old comrades promptly expelled him from the Italian Socialist Party.

Secretly, Antonio Salandra, Italy’s Prime Minister since March 1914, and the Foreign Minister, Sidney Sonnino, were also of the war party, having calculated that Germany and Austria were heading for an early defeat and that it would be in Italy’s interest to be on the winning side. The previous month, they had secretly signed a treaty in London, committing Italy to enter the war.

Their problem was how to get their decision past the Italian parliament, which was controlled by a shrewd and seasoned statesman named Giovanni Giolitti. Over 70 years old, he had served four times as Prime Minister and had dominated Italian politics since the turn of the century. Giolitti thought Italy’s army was not up to fighting a modern war, and calculated that there was more to be gained from staying neutral. He carried a clear majority every time he spoke.

To thwart parliament, the government needed the street disturbances. Hugh Dalton, Britain’s future Chancellor of the Exchequer, was in Rome and noted how “hundreds of thousands of good people of all classes were walking through the streets of Rome and other Italian cities, intoning with a slow and interminable repetition, ‘Death to Giolitti, Death to Giolitti!’”

On 13 May, the day that D’Annunzio delivered his inflammatory speech, Salandra handed in his resignation to the King, who sent for Giolitti to form a new administration. The old man’s life was under threat. His house was under guard. More importantly, he did not believe it would be possible to break the secret London treaty, and did not want to be the prime minister who took the country to war. He declined. The King had no choice but to recall a much-strengthened Salandra.

Italy suffered nearly 2.2 million casualties in the war that followed – 650,000 dead, 947,000 wounded and 600,000 taken prisoner or missing in action. During a catastrophic defeat at Caporetto, in 1917, the Italians showed so little stomach for a fight that 265,000 were taken prisoner, and about 400,000 vanished, in most cases because they fled the battlefield and sloped off home.

After the war, Italy gained some territory, including Trieste and South Tyrol, which it might have gained anyway had it stayed neutral, while all the Italian-inhabited ports on the east Adriatic were allocated to the newly created kingdom of Yugoslavia. The humiliation at Caporetto and the belief that Italy’s reward for its sacrifices was what D’Annunzio called a “mutilated peace” created the conditions that left the road to Rome open for Mussolini. He hailed D’Annunzio as the John the Baptist of fascism. The poet, who ended his days in empty luxury, watched by Fascist spies, thought that description was an insult.

Earlier ‘moments’ in the series can be seen at  independent.co.uk/greatwar

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
News
REX/Eye Candy
science
News
A photo of Charles Belk being detained by police on Friday 22 August
news
News
i100
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates after scoring his first goal for Arsenal in the Champions League qualifier against Besiktas
sportChilean's first goal for the club secures place in draw for Champions League group stages
Arts and Entertainment
Amis: 'The racial situation in the US is as bad as it’s been since the Civil War'
booksAuthor says he might come back across Atlantic after all
Extras
indybest
Life and Style
Google Doodle celebrates the 200th birthday of Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
News
i100
News
In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Jim Carrey and Kate Winslett medically erase each other from their memories
scienceTechnique successfully used to ‘reverse’ bad memories in rodents could be used on trauma victims
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Pixie Lott will take part in Strictly Come Dancing 2014, the BBC has confirmed
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

C# Developer (C#, ASP.NET Developer, SQL, MVC, WPF, Real-Time F

£40000 - £48000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: C# Devel...

C# Swift Payment Developer (C#, ASP.NET, .NET, MVC, Authorize.N

£45000 - £60000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: C# Swift...

Front-End Developer (JavaScript, HTML5, CSS3, C#, GUI)

£55000 - £70000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Front-End Deve...

Graduate C# Developer (.NET, WPF, SQL, Agile, C++) - London

£30000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Graduate C# De...

Day In a Page

Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

What is the appeal of Twitch?

Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

How bosses are making us work harder

As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

A tale of two writers

Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

Should pupils get a lie in?

Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

Prepare for Jewish jokes...

... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

A dream come true for SJ Watson

Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
10 best cycling bags for commuters

10 best cycling bags for commuters

Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

Paul Scholes column

Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

The science of herding is cracked

Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

This tyrant doesn’t rule

It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?